Ukraine war tops agenda in New Delhi for UK's Liz Truss and Russia's Sergey Lavrov

While the West wants India to oppose the Russian invasion, Moscow is seeking its help to counter western sanctions

India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss chat before their meeting in New Delhi. Reuters
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Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss arrived in New Delhi on Thursday morning with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expected later in the day, as India finds itself caught between the West and long-standing ally Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the UK's wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, Ms Truss said Britain respects India's decision to buy discounted oil from Moscow.

"I think it's very important that we respect other countries' decisions about the issues that they face; India is a sovereign nation. I'm not going to tell India what to do," Ms Truss told reporters.

Since western sanctions were imposed on Russian entities after Moscow invaded Ukraine, India has bought at least 13 million barrels of Russian crude oil, compared with about 16 million barrels for all of last year, Reuters data suggests.

Russia is offering a discount on price from before the start of the Ukraine crisis in February of $35 a barrel, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

Mr Lavrov will meet India's External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Friday after arriving in the Indian capital from China, another Moscow ally, where he attended a two-day conference on Afghanistan.

Both New Delhi and Beijing have refused to condemn Russia's invasion and have abstained from voting on UN resolutions against Moscow's actions.

Thousands of civilians and troops have been killed since Russian forces entered Ukraine on February 24, while more than 4 million people are reported to have fled to neighbouring countries amid attacks on major cities including the capital Kyiv. The war has pushed up the price of oil, roiled markets and affected global wheat supplies.

India's stance on the conflict has triggered diplomatic disquiet in the US and European Union, which are rallying international support for punitive economic sanctions on Moscow.

US President Joe Biden said last week that New Delhi was “somewhat shaky” on Russia and sent top aide Daleep Singh to India on Wednesday to “consult closely with counterparts on the consequences of Russia's unjustified war against Ukraine”.

But India has remained steadfast in refusing to condemn Russia, a major strategic and military partner since the Cold War era and often referred to by Indian officials as a “time-tested friend”.

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India's military has an extensive inventory of Russian-made equipment, ranging from fighter jets and nuclear submarines to battle tanks and assault rifles.

Russia in December delivered the first batch of its S-400 missile defence system to New Delhi under a $5.4 billion deal that upset Washington.

India has started buying discounted oil from Russia after the Ukraine conflict sent global crude oil prices spiralling upwards, ignoring the West’s pleas to shun supplies from Moscow.

State-owned oil companies have already bought six million barrels of heavily discounted Russian crude, the Financial Times reported.

India currently imports 85 per cent of its oil from West Asia and only 1 per cent from Russia.

The government said it plans to double imports of Russian coking coal used for steel manufacturing.

Experts say Mr Lavrov’s New Delhi visit is significant as Russia tries to work out new mechanisms with friendly countries to bypass western economic sanctions that have isolated it from the global financial system. Bilateral trade between April last year and January this year stood at $10.75bn.

According to a report in the Times of India, western sanctions against Russia's financial system have left hundreds of Indian exporters unable to receive payments totalling $500 million.

India and Russia are reportedly exploring the possibility of replacing the US dollar as a trading currency through a “rupee-rouble” mechanism that would see Moscow and New Delhi depositing their currencies in each other’s banks. A team from Russia’s central bank is expected to visit India to work out the details.

Anuradha Chenoy, a Delhi-based expert on Russia and former dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Mr Lavrov’s visit was significant as India remains under pressure from the US to change its stance on Moscow.

“The steam on the war is slowly petering out but the West is still keen to punish, almost demolish Russia through economic warfare,” Ms Chenoy told The National.

Ms Chenoy said the US was making every effort to squeeze Russia economically and Mr Lavrov’s visit to India was aimed precisely at circumventing those sanctions and continuing business as usual with New Delhi.

“India has been a historical ally and Russia wants this to continue. They want India to circumvent these sanctions,” she said.

“India would be interested in getting oil at a concession rate because India is oil-starved. They would like to have a long-term relationship where they get a great bargain."

Updated: March 31, 2022, 6:09 PM